Grand Portage National Monument

Ok, the terrain is flat, and the hike is straight through the woods. But many are the trails to a great view. What the 8.5 mile Grand Portage trail offers is a chance to commune with the past -- to sense, even if you can never relive, the ardors and joys of the voyageurs, the broad backs of the old fur trade. I mean, who wants to carry two 90 pound packs? That's work, hard work. Not recreation. But you can still walk the walk, and explore some of the old buildings used by the traders.

Grand Portage National Monument is a superb National Park Service facility, a place where history and terrain come together into a single, pithy unit.

Location: Northwestern shore of Lake Superior, 7 miles south of the United States-Canada border and 36 miles north of Grand Marais, Minnesota. The park entrance is one mile from U.S. 61.
Size: 710 acres
Ecosystem: Northern woodlands, ranging from the shore of Lake Superior to the Pigeon River
Features: Historic buildings and displays, hiking trails, summer ferry to Isle Royale National Park
Activities: Active learning, hiking, primitive camping, cross-country skiing

Grand Portage has two principal trails, one short, the other longer. The Mount Rose trail begins across the road from the parking lot and ascends 300 feet to the hill's summit. Short and sweet. There's even a brochure available at the trailhead.

But the star attraction is the historic Grand Portage Trail. It took the voyageurs a few hours to carry two 90-pound packs along the 8 1/2-mile portage between Lake Superior and Fort Charlotte, the company's smaller storage depot located on the Pigeon River. Today the portage is open year-round to hikers, backpackers, and cross-country skiers. There are no modern facilities along the way. Campers must register in advance for the primitive campsite at Fort Charlotte. There is no charge for primitive camping.

The historic buildings are open mid-May through mid-October. Regular hours are 8 AM to 5 PM daily. Other areas in the park are open year-round for outdoor activities.

The park has a picnic area within walking distance of the parking lot. Visitors can obtain food and overnight lodging nearby at the Grand Portage Lodge.

The Voyageurs
Voyageurs: French for"travelers." Hardy French-Canadian fur traders, more at home in birchbark canoes than on land. Their reputation for working energetically without complaint, chanting nostalgic French songs as they paddled, and vigorously defending the honor of their profession has earned them the status of folk heroes. "There is no life so happy as a voyageur's life," reminisced one who finally retired after 41 years, and who neglected to mention that in return for adventure and camaraderie, they sacrificed comfort, health, and permanent homes. In the employ of fur-trading corporations they labored exhaustively to meet the demand for beaver skins in Europe. While they fueled a young nation's economy and opened new territory, the voyageurs fell victim to disease, collapsed along grueling portages, drowned in the icy waters of the Canadian wilderness.

A water network linked Montreal, capital city of the Great Lakes fur trade, with northwestern Canada and its "soft gold, " the pelts of fur-bearing animals. Where streams were unnavigable, canoemen carried boats and cargo over a portage, or trail. Christened by French explorers and missionaries sometime after 1722, Grand Portage, the "Great Carrying Place," bypassed rapids on the lower Pigeon River and was the acknowledged throughway to Canada's prime fur country. In 1784 it became headquarters of the North West Company, a group of Highland Scots who recognized a good location when they saw one. To transport furs the company hired a backwoods navy of voyageurs.

The company's post at the mouth of the Pigeon was a convenient meeting place for the voyageurs, who had evolved into two groups based on geography: the north men, or "winterers," and the Montreal men, also called "pork-eaters." Late in July brigades of north men set out from Grand Portage for trading posts in the Canadian north. Trade goods bought furs from Indians who had come to desire the trappings of European civilization. Like tobacco in colonial Virginia, beaver furs were currency in the Northwest. Ultimately they would be fashioned into elegant felt top hats to grace the heads of the European and American upper classes.

Through the harsh winter, the north men traded out of their lonely posts. With the break-up of the ice, about mid-May, they returned to the Grand Portage. Meanwhile, the Montrealers propelled their craft up the Ottawa River, then westward across the Great Lakes. Two months later they joined their counterparts for the annual Rendezvous. At this company-sponsored event the north men exchanged furs for trade goods and supplies furnished by the Montreal men, partners struck deals, and Europeans and Indians alike engaged in raucous entertainment.

Afterwards the winterers headed into the backcountry once more, and Montreal men paddled canoe loads of furs back east. The Grand Portage trading cycle continued until 1803, when the company moved upshore to Fort William. By 1821, the portage had fallen into disuse. The fur trade lost momentum toward the mid-19th century. Fashions changed and beaver populations diminished. The hard-working, rambunctious voyageurs found their profession becoming obsolete.

Birchbark Canoe On foot, the voyageurs might have trudged 15 or 20 miles a day By canoe they covered 60 to 80 miles-and hauled tons of cargo as well. Were it not for the lightweight, speedy birchbark canoe, an invention of the region's indigenous people, North America's fur-trading empire would not have existed on such a vast scale.

Canoes used by the winterers on narrow, rapid waters were about 25 feet long and carried four to six voyageurs. Lake canoes, about 10 feet longer, carried twice as many Montreal men and up to 8,000 pounds of cargo. Both types were constructed from large sheets of birch bark lashed with split spruce roots to a wooden gunwale, then lined with cedar planks and stabilized with ribbing. Seams were waterproofed with spruce pitch. No hardware was used.

As practical as the canoes were, they could not be characterized as indestructible. Easily punctured bark skin required constant care and frequent repairs Many a voyageur spent his evenings patching a canoe before crawling underneath to catch a few hours sleep.

Indians The arrival of the French explorers in the mid-1600's began a new era for the few hundred Cree and Ojibwa who made Grand Portage their home, as well as the Sioux, Blackfoot, Beaver, Chipewyan, and Slave Indians of the Canadian Northwest. Superb canoeists and hunters, the natives now practiced their ancient skills as vital participants in the international fur trade. They furnished not only the sought-after pelts but equipment and knowledge essential to the voyageurs, who spent most of the year in the lands the Indians had inhabited for generations. Tribesmen taught the newcomers to fashion canoes from birch bark and guided them along the age-old water routes into the wilderness. Sometimes the relationship between Indians and whites went beyond business; more than a few voyageurs married native women.

For their part, the voyageurs offered the Indians exotic new items, eye-catching curiosities at first that eventually turned into necessities. Glass beads from Venice decorated ceremonial clothing. Wool blankets and woven cloth replaced animal skins. Iron implements -- kettles, axes, firearms, and traps -- became everyday items, as did distilled spirits. By the 19th century, European culture had left its indelible mark on the lives of even the most remote peoples.

The North West Company In 1763, after the French and Indian War, France ceded Canada to Great Britain. Under British rule just about anyone was allowed to extract the natural wealth of the Canadian Northwest. Those with foresight pooled their resources and formed wilderness corporations. Thus was born the North West Company in 1784. Company head Simon McTavish and his partners, canny businessmen with a ready eye for expansion, inspired Washington Irving's description,"lords of the lakes and forests." Canoemen themselves the partners accompanied the voyageurs into the wilderness or back to Montreal.

The enterprise succeeded mainly because of the expedient waterway into the Canadian interior via the Grand Portage. Voyageurs paddled far into the wilderness, intercepting Indian hunters before they had traded away furs to the competition. intense rivalry heightened in the early 1800's as the partners vied for business with the Hudson's Bay Company, and profits diminished for both. Finally, in 1821, the two merged, putting an end to the sometimes violent feud.

A Tour Of The Stockade From 1784 to 1803, chief director Simon McTavish and his North West Company partners ran the most profitable fur trade operation on the Great Lakes. The company's inland headquarters was located at Grand Portage, the largest fur trade post within hundreds of miles. Sixteen wooden buildings stood inside the palisade, including a business office, a warehouse for trade goods and furs, food storage buildings, and living quarters for the partners and clerks.

This was also the site of Rendezvous, an annual gathering eagerly awaited throughout the long winter season by everyone connected with the company. Hundreds of voyageurs spent the better part of July camped outside the palisade."The North men live under tents," wrote explorer Alexander Mackenzie, a company partner, "but the more frugal pork-eater lodges beneath his canoe." Food was plentiful and liquor flowed freely-at least for those willing to part with the wages they had just received for the past year's work. Long-standing rivalries might spark fist fights or explode into all-out brawls, landing participants in the company jail. On the final night of Rendezvous, the partners and their guests feasted and danced in the Great Hall, while outside the voyageurs and Indians staged a celebration of their own. The local Ojibwa donned ceremonial dress and canoemen sported their trademark apparel: plumed caps. bright jackets, and fringed sashes. When Rendezvous ended, the voyageurs took up their paddles and headed out for another season of travel and trade.

The post was abandoned in 1803 after the North West Company, owned by Scots but operating on American soil, relocated northward to avoid the complications of citizenship, licensing, and high import duties. When explorer David Thompson surveyed the area nearly 20 years later, he saw only the remains of clover-covered foundations. The Grand Portage itself was obscured by vegetation and fallen trees. In 1958, the Grand Portage band of Minnesota Chippewa donated the lands that became the national monument that same year. Written accounts and archeological excavations provided information for reconstructions. Interiors are furnished 1797-style. Some of the features on display include. . .

The Great Hall, inactive most of the year, came to life as the fur traders converged in late June for Rendezvous. Company partners, clerks, and Indians talked business in the Great Hall by day and dined in the evening. Food was prepared in the kitchen, located behind the Great Hall.

A fur press converted the bulky furs into easily handled cargo. About 60 beaver pelts, piled atop 4 binding cords and sandwiched in burlap or muslin, were pressed and tied into a compact 90-pound bale.

During the company's heyday, all trade goods going to outposts in the Canadian fur country and all furs bound for Montreal were funneled through Grand Portage. Thus, the cedar-picket palisade was designed mainly as secure storage for extensive inventories of goods rather than as defense against attack. Visitors can climb the lookout tower for a view of the grounds and Lake Superior.

Outside the palisade is a reconstructed canoe warehouse. Its location indicates that the original building might have belonged to an independent trader. It also may have provided extra storage space when warehouses inside the palisade were full. Now the building exhibits historic items, including two birchbark canoes constructed by traditional methods.

Related Sites
Old Fort William, Voyageurs National Park, Fort Michilimackinac, and the Pine City Wintering Post are other historic fur trade sites open to visitors. The Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul also exhibits art and artifacts related to the fur trade.

Grand Portage National Monument
PO. Box 668
Grand Marais, MN 55604
(218) 387-2788

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 19 Dec 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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